The Onus of Responsibility

Interim dean Hugh Ruppersburg addressed the UGA chapter of Phi Beta Kappa in December, 2011 on the thread of responsibility running through Arthur Miller's All My Sons, the scandal at Penn State and the future of these UGA graduates:

Arthur Miller’s play is about men who fail to do what is right, about a man whose desire to protect his name and his business causes the death of his own son and of other American young men fighting in the Second World War. Joe Keller loses his son because he allows profit motives to corrode and destroy basic human values. When his surviving son calls him a murderer, the accusation is not unjust. “You can be better,” Chris chastises his mother at play’s end when she asks him what more than sorry can she and Joe be for how events have turned out. “Once and for all you can know there’s a universe of people outside and you’re responsible to it, and unless you know that, you threw away your son because that’s why he died.”

Numerous works in literature pose this question of responsibility. Think first of the parable of the Good Samaritan in the Book of Luke in the Bible. In the novels of Charles Dickens, social and moral injustice is a major target. In Herman Melville’s story ”Bartleby the Scrivener” an entire office staff sits by, first joking about and then ignoring a man whose repeated statement “I would prefer not to” signifies his decision to die. In Franz Kafka’s story “The Hunger Artist” a man’s decision to starve himself becomes a sideshow attraction in a circus. Spectators don’t care that he is dying—they are just entertained by his advancing emaciation. Think also of the 2008 film Doubt, based on the play by John Patrick Shanley, in which the principal of a church school struggles with her growing suspicion that the priest of her church is molesting a young student. Finally, consider this statement by Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus tells his son: “The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience.”

The Penn State scandal is doubly shocking for those of us who work in higher education because it forces us to pause and wonder whether, in a similar situation, we also would fail to act, whether we would fail do to what was right, or whether we would just ignore it and hope that the machine rolled merrily on.

Be sure and read the whole thing.

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